Every year many talented film directors introduce new feature films in some of the very well respected Film Festivals internationally. Some of these films not always are accessible to everyone, at least in an initial phase, and depending on the case, a potential distribution in theaters might proceed in minor or larger scale. That is why a film festival is always the perfect occasion for watching films otherwise hardly accepted in the mainstream network. So with that said, we were lucky enough to attend the screening of the American film director and playwright Neil Labute’s “Some Velvet Morning,” introduced at the Stockholm Film Festival en last November.
Rather than filmmaking Neil Labute has a solid background as playwright and enjoys more directing on stage. The film was premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year and Tribeca’s label decided to acquire the distribution rights for the U.S. Neil Labute has a certain method, exploring conflicts and extreme situations between characters, but also due to his theatrical expertise, his is able to shoot an entire film between one and two weeks. Mr. Labute and I were taken to a special room in the hotel we met to talk alone and peacefully.
Early on in your career you met Aaron Eckhart, whom you have worked together every now an then. Please tell me about it.
We met in college actually, in Utah. He was undergraduate, a couple of years younger that I was. He was in the class I was assisting teaching so I met him as a student in class. I think we had a similar artistic sensibility. First time I saw him acting was in a piece of mine someone else was directing and he was in it. I saw him and thought, he is a good actor, with a great look and seems to get my stuff. Pretty soon we started to work together more and more on the stage. We sneaked off into plays. After school we were in touch and when I first got the idea of making a movie – at that time I was teaching at the University and I was doing theater around the country – I called Aaron if he wanted to participate in the movie. He was living in New York, studying acting there and working a little bit. I was I the middle of the country in Indiana, so he said yeah I come up. He got a ride from a truck driver across the country; you know we did it for no money. We did four or five movies together in a row.
You like to explore conflicts between characters, in occasions reaching the level of the sentimental abuse. How would you describe this pursuit of depicting certain patterns of behavior?
It is not an obsession it’s a job. And I don’t mean it is my job and I don’t care, I love what I do. But as I understand it, that is the job I am supposed to do, I am supposed to look for conflict, find two characters or more who are in trouble, fall out of love, start not liking each other at work becoming competitive. It is not about finding people who are happy, who have problems. Every story I’m looking for is for somebody who is like, this is what I want – this is what I want – and we are against each other. Even in comedies, characters are struggling against something, there is always some conflict going on. I explore sometimes in the extreme. I often go back and look at men and women who are in some kind of conflict. Overall I am supposed to create a story that takes an audience on a trip, other than their own life where during two hours they can forget about their own crazy relationship and watch this other crazy relationship.
When you wrote "The Shapes Of Things", was it intended for both as a play and as a feature film?
It was play first. I didn’t think about this is film. I wrote it as a play, performed as a play and what happened it was, I happened to have people in it who have also done a number of films. Paul Rudd – no as many as he has done now – Rachel Weisz was working on films, basically the cast what I had. We started [the theater] in London and went to New York, and then we went to Los Angeles and we made the movie. At some point in London we started talking about wouldn’t be this fun to turn it into a movie? It was about taking exactly what we had on stage and put it into a real scenario, so we didn’t create a whole new world so exactly what was on the stage would be on the screen. We did that throughout Focus features.
Did you find any benefit about everyone knowing his or her role from the play already?
Certainly made things very easy because by the end of the year you’re been together a long time and know those parts really well. The danger is that they were doing exactly what they did on stage, and it is just different kinds of acting. You want to be fresh so I went into the script on every scene and start to taking out little lines, changing little things all way through. They didn’t actually know it. So they had to relearn it. But they really knew how the thing played and felt comfortable. A lot of the movies I have made that have been my own script it’s been in really short period of time, eleven days, twenty-two. I think we did this film in eighteen days. Velvet was the shortest; we did it in eight days. I just finished to shoot my last movie Dirty Weekend we did it in fifteen days.
I actually had the feeling that the way you like to work with actors is for a short period but intense.
It is one way to get people so your are not asking for four months but come for ten days and it would be done. But you are asking for a lot of them. Everyday they are coming with ten pages in their head. You can feel them they are almost overloaded. Everyday that I worked with Stanley and Alice in Some Velvet Morning you could sort of see it in their eyes. It was about as much as they could do. An also the material of my movies is intense. Here it was just two people so it is almost real-time. When they leave and they come back they are supposed to be in the exact place where they were, it’s like: I was just talking to you, how was the feeling in that moment, I have to find that again. You are asking for something that is actually pretty difficult. But they are good actors.
Why you wanted to work with Paul Rudd, perhaps not that typecast in comedy roles at that time?
Not as much. He was another person I met in college. Not the same college where I met Aaron, he was in Kansas and I did grad school there. He has done at least one of my plays in New York. I know him pretty well. I was in London when I wrote the first version [of The Shape of Things] so we met for lunch and asked him, hey, read this and tell me what you think, you want to stay? He was already doing a play but he read it and said “I have to do this play.” He has a great ability for people to like him; he’s a likable guy. It is a quality about him that makes you smile. It’s like I think I going to like this guys, as a friend. And that was the kind of guy I think I was writing, you know people that want to be friendly but they keep making mistakes and I like that kind of person under the microscope, to see what happens if you put this kind of pressure under them, how weak are they? Someone doesn’t like conflict, if you push into conflict what happens to him. Most people believe they are decent people. It is kind of fun to take decent people and put them into a situation and see how long they can be decent.
Working with both formats play and feature film, how do you think they benefit from each other?
I think a lot of the job is the same. You are basically in charge of a production or of a movie – I am going to call both productions – and you have to filter all these ideas down in this is what we are going to do. So those overlap pretty well. But doing film and doing play is quite different. I enjoy doing both but play makes a lot more sense to me because movie you are constantly shooting out of order and it is all based on economics, money: how quickly can we do it, how cheaply can we do it and how much would we make. That’s the general economics, and everything else it is secondary to that. How are you feeling today, are you ready to cry? I doesn’t matter today is the day you cry or this is the day you do your bed scene because it is the only day we can get in that hotel. It’s all about that, not in the actors feeling from beginning to the end.
I watched Some Velvet Morning a couple of days ago and I actually felt like watching a play – as you mentioned, like watching it in real-time.
We shot it in order, from begging to the end, so they took the journey together. It wasn’t like let’s shoot the ending first. So we did that film more like a play. Because it is the actors sitting and talking what it makes the film. For actors, the more you can make it logical and about them, because at the end people is like “oh is not that Stanley Tucci or is not the girl from Star Trek? You have to connect with actors, that is what people are going to see. For me to create an atmosphere where the can work really well is the most important thing. Even you are pushing a lot, you have to make them feel they have all the time in the world. So having that sensibility, because it is the kind of approach what is in play, has help me in movies, try everybody not to feel pressure. Because that is exactly the annoying thing abut movies, the pressure you feel.
By the way, you directed the comedy remake of Death at a Funeral with Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence, which is not your usual genre. Why you decided to do that?
I guess precisely for that I decide to direct it. I never wrote a comedy. I don’t know if I have complete autonomy to choose a comedy to do or remake it, but this opportunity came and I definitely wanted to do it because it is a genre that I really like. To be honest I find it very difficult to do, very precise. I was given an opportunity to work with Chris Rock again [in the film Nurse Betty] that did the adaptation from the original. So I wanted to try, I enjoyed doing it but I found it very hard. As many other arts when you do it well you make it look easy, the position or somebody’s timing, it is almost like science. When you watch a Buster Keaton movie is like math, the precision how he moves and that thing happen.
Perhaps I missed but where the house of Some Velvet Morning is located?
It is a family home Brooklyn. It is where we actually shot it. We pay the family for the house and they went off on vacation so we shot there for eight days. We get into the house and we said let’s figure out the map. We took step by step, letting actors their way to do it, choosing for instance what color do you like the dress? It could be blue, green, she wanted red and that red pops into the screen.
I guess you looked for a sexual attention on her as well?
Both, because a lot of the work was with her finding the characters and the way this person lives. She had a very strong idea of what her journey was. It could happen I said we go our way to upstairs and she was like the character I don’t know it feels like do that, so I had to give her space to do that. They were involved with new ideas.
In fact, Stanley Tucci has a wealthy experience. How was working with him?
He is an actor; he is a director, for film, for stage. He was an asset to have someone who thinks as a director as well. He was always pushing [for the right direction] his role is kind of creep, changing moods, sometimes sad, sometimes pathetic or funny. It was all built on no matter what I’m doing, in my mind I am in love with this girl.
Why did you choose to work with him?
He pretty texted all the boxes of what I just described. Beyond the fact he is really quite smart, his understanding, he has the ability to do all these things the character needs to have.
Alice Eve is less experienced than Stanley, I presume for her this was an opportunity to do something much more acting-based.
She has beautiful looks and she is young. This was new for her in terms of doing something dramatic and she had a big part in. I actually worked with her on the stage, her mother and father and both actors and I know then about ten years ago. She was so smart about the world of the character. I knew she is going to work hard, that is what I knew about her. She plays an objet of desire. So the movie is about to set up these two characters that they have done this game a number of times and sometimes I am Fred and at the end he is going to take from her what he wants but the game is how long should keep it from him. As soon the film stars and he comes to the door and he says – “it’s Fred ” so she is “oh, you are Fred today and I am Velvet.” That is the game. There are people who pay for all kinds of experiences, so that is what is about.
One last question, is the title of the movie a reference to Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood?
Yes, to that song. I often see written things have song titles and I like that title in particular. But I also like the song, it has a very strong dynamic between a man and a woman, the whole album is these series of duets. In this one in particular the music changes tempo when she or he sings, like a battle going on. I had that tittle in mind for a while; my parents had that record home, so I knew I am going to use it at some point. It is an affair that ends badly so I though that could fit in the world of the movie.